Marina Abramović: Gates and Portals - in parts charming, in others...underwhelming
By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels' Arts Correspondent
Marina Abramović, Time Energizer, from the series Transitory Objects, 2000/2012. Copyright Marina Abramović. Image courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives. Photo by Fabrizio Vatieri
The dual show at Modern Art Oxford and the city’s Pitt Rivers Museum of the latest site-specific work by the celebrated Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović promises to flip on its head the usual museum experience.
“At Modern Art Oxford, rather than just viewing artworks in front of you, you will be partaking in an experience that will be happening to you,” said Abramović (b. 1946, Belgrade, lives and works in New York) at the show’s press launch.
“Normally visitors to museums never have any kind of demands made of them; they come, they see the work, they go. They’re silent witnesses and they’re passing by. In my case, here the visitors are not silent witnesses, they're part of the show… Their experience with the object is the artwork itself…” she explained.
So, no “passive” looking at exhibits then. Instead, at Marina Abramović: Gates and Portals visitors become the performers, and along with a small group of other participants enter the gallery’s bare white spaces to encounter a number of gates and portals that apparently encourage exploration of “heightened awareness and transitional states of being.”
Abramović said the show is “the most minimal and most radical conceptually I have ever made till now.” She herself does not take part.
Visitors are gently conducted around hand-in-hand by facilitators trained in the “Abramović Method”. But before that, we have to leave behind our watches and phones. To minimise distractions. It’s the beginning of what seems like a ritual, or some rite of passage maybe that includes sensory deprivation. The sweet-smiled soft-shoed facilitators offer us headsets to don, and then a hand to guide us to stand, eyes shut, under one or other of the copper “gates” or to face the wall for a bit, until with a gentle tap of the hand we are moved on.
Marina Abramović, Portal, 2022. © Oak Taylor-Smith for Factum Arte and Marina Abramović. Image courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives
Next, we sit blindfolded for a while, before moving to watch a video briefly of Abramović experiencing an object’s energy – including her hands hovering over the empty space after the object had been removed. Abramović believes in the intrinsic energies carried by objects, and crucially, the energy they leave behind after removal. In the final room, there’s more stillness, this time standing, sitting or lying, and then the strange sensation of being guided through a brightly glowing “portal” of selenite crystals.
Um. Quite what to make of all this, I’m not sure. It was a bit Emperor's new clothes. But then, what’s not to like about having some quiet time in the middle of a working day? We’re all familiar with the release that comes from letting go, and so here there’s the chance to enjoy narrowing focus for a while, in my case to the soft “lub-dub” sounds of my heart and the muffled footsteps around me. Yet, do we really need the mystical elements, the ritualised process through gates and portals, to engage at that level?
I had the benefit at least of hearing Abramović talk of her interest in, and experiences of, Tibetan Buddhist practices and similar. How gates and portals prompt physical and spiritual transitions – that sites of transition have strong associations with Tibetan Buddhism and are present in Hinduism and other religious practices originating in Asia and beyond.
Exiting the exhibition via the echoey metal stairway was an interesting transition of its own, back down into the bright commercial world of the shop and cafe voices. A re-connection with the world we inhabit, including, as Abramović puts it, with our ‘holy’ phones.
Over at the Pitt Rivers Museum, things are different. More straightforward and tangible. In that atmospheric museum of anthropology, ethnography and archaeology, its Victorian spaces stuffed to the gills with all sorts of objects, from armour to amulets, baskets to bronzes, robes to masks and so much more, Abramović requires less of us, visitors; we are no longer performers.
During a four-week residency there in summer 2021, Abramović chose 13 objects from the displays to research. In fact, she says, “I did not choose them, they chose me,” explaining that it was their powerful energies that drew her to them.
Marina Abramović, Presence and Absence, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. Photo: Tim Hand
Seven of those objects now form a trail that spreads out from the Victorian-style display case temporarily made into an Abramović artwork. Inside, is a 19th-century witch’s ladder, namely a feathered rope discovered in the roof of a house in Somerset, most probably used in folk magic or witchcraft, plus Abramović’s drawing and a video of her performance as she relates intensely to the object.
A trail leaflet explains her research. I have to say I enjoyed this trail, wandering around the Pitt Rivers Museum, re-engaging with the objects - that is to say re-engaging with the “usual” museum experience. It was fun finding the things she’d picked out, such as the little dog divination figure from Nigeria, the smooth pebble love charm from the Torres Straits, and the “witch in a bottle”, which is one of the museum’s most famous artefacts. A witch is said to have been caught in this stoppered glass bottle donated in 1915 by the historian Margaret Murray, and an old woman had told her: “They do say there be a witch in it, and if you let him out there'll be a peck o' trouble.” The museum has never opened it!
“The visitor will make the journey, will become the experience,” Abramović had said. Okay, I can go with that, to some degree at the Modern Art Oxford part of the show, where I enjoyed experiencing what amounted to meditation, and also learning about spiritual practices in Buddhism and the like. And I was charmed by the objects in the Pitt Rivers’ trail, but the exhibition as a whole seemed to me somewhat disjointed. Abramović herself is renowned for the concepts, strength and power of her performance art, but this seemed a little thin.
Advance booking is essential. For more information go to: www.modernartoxford.org.uk
Gates and Portals is the second major Abramović exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, in partnership with the Pitt Rivers Museum. The first, Marina Abramović: Objects Performance Video Sound (1995), included her now famous work, ‘Cleaning the Mirror’.
Marina Abramović: Gates and Portals is curated by Amy Budd, Curator, Projects and Exhibition and Emma Ridgway, Chief Curator, Head of Exhibitions and Learning at Modern Art Oxford. The installation at the Pitt Rivers Museum is curated by Professor Clare Harris.
Accompanying the exhibition will be a publication, co-designed by Abramović, focusing on spiritual practice in relation to long durational performance, and the significance of portals and gates throughout history and cultures, will be published by Koenig Books.